Words have meaning. We use words to communicate with one another. Often the meaning of our words is shaped by context; a word might have a narrow, technical meaning in one context and a more general meaning in a different context. A phrase might be radically different in meaning depending upon where and how it is used. This can result in confusion, and sometimes it can result in humor. A humorous example is coming, but a certain amount of context must be provided first to arrive at the humor I wish to share.
One of the things I loved about college was taking four classes at the same time, being exposed to different thoughts from different fields, moving from one branch of knowledge to another as I read assigned classwork and as I researched material for different papers I was required to write. On many occasions, the same topic would arise the same week in two or three different classes, so I was required to consider that topic from differing points of view. Because I loved that experience, I have recreated it in my private post-college life. I don’t read one book, finish it, and start another. Instead I have a stack of books from which I read each day. When I finish one book in the stack, I reshelve it and choose another book of the same genre. My stack might be six or seven books high, and if I read twenty or thirty pages from each book, I make my way through them like a college student taking several different courses and learning about various things at the same time.
Last night I had finished twenty pages from Aristotle’s “History of Animals”—part of the Britannica Great Books of the Western World collection—and wanted to glance at something light before jumping into Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time. I happened to grab a book of humorous pieces by Dave Barry, newspaper columns he had written in the 1990s, and I spent a few minutes cleansing my mental palette with that light reading before diving into the profound examinations of Heidegger.
A cleansed palette might not be ready for Heidegger. Here is a selection of where I began last night: “The formal existential totality of the ontological structural whole of Da-sein must thus be formulated in the following structure: The being of Da-sein means being-ahead-of-oneself already in (the world) as being-together-with (innerworldly beings encountered). This being fills in the significance of the word “care,” which is used in a purely ontological and existential way. Any ontically intended tendency of being, such as worry or carefreeness, is ruled out. Since being-in-the-world is essentially care, being-together-with things at hand could be taken in our previous analyses as “taking care” of them…. Care not only characterizes existentiality, abstracted from facticity and falling prey, but encompasses the unity of these determinations of being….”
Nothing funny there, I know, and Heidegger had no intention of being humorous with those words. As a philosopher, he uses technical terms such as “ontological” and “existential,” as well as his own favorite word, “Da-sein,” which he uses to search for the core of what it means to exist. As I wrote a few days ago, “What is it that makes me me? What is it that makes you you?” That’s the kind of question Heidegger is asking, and is trying to answer, in the four hundred pages of Being and Time. But with a taste of Dave Barry’s writing lingering in my mind, I could not help but visualize “innerworldly beings” in a comic way. Nor could I resist an over-the-top application of Heidegger’s assertion that worry and carefreeness are ruled out. But the piece de resistance of this paragraph was Heidegger’s reference to falling prey. He is describing, of course, the danger of becoming a victim, of our being (or Da-sein) facing threats from other thinking beings in our world, a group he rather aptly describes as “the they.” (I was already considering an entire post, inspired by Heidegger, about “the they”—you know who he means, “the they” who say things that no one we know has said, “the they” who are running the world, even though none of us knows who “they” are. Heidegger had a problem with Them already one hundred years ago.
But, with a dose of Dave Barry still in my mind, I read the phrase “falling prey” and immediately pictured white-tailed deer dropping from above. I could even picture a Far Side cartoon with a road sign on the side of a mountain that says, “Watch for falling prey,” while deer are tumbling down the side of the mountain toward the road.
Another phrase from Heidegger that has stuck with me is not his own invention. He quotes a poem by Holderlin which contains the line, “We are a sign that is not read.” I spent part of one evening trying to create a meme which puts those eight words on a highway sign, but I was not happy with the results. “Watch for falling prey” would be funnier anyhow, but I still want to contemplate further the significance of those words, “We are a sign that is not read.” J.